Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Case for an Autonomous UFO-Spotting Program

When I was sixteen years old, I stumbled across Whitley Strieber's best-selling book, Communion. The cover illustration grabbed my attention immediately, and I read it eagerly from cover to cover.

At the time, I thought of the book as a sensational, sci-fi adventure, and the fact that it was sold as a true story only served to intensify the impression it made on me.

That was cool, but - is this real?

Strieber's account is enigmatic and deeply personal, but at the other end of the spectrum are the dry catalogues that suggest his experiences - though bizarre - are not uncommon.

Much has been made of the public claims by astronauts such as Gordon Cooper and Edgar Mitchell. Books like Timothy Good's Beyond Top Secret offer up a sober catalogue of literally hundreds of persuasive UFO sightings involving multiple experienced observers (e.g. military and commercial airline pilots) in good viewing conditions; sightings that are supported by video footage, radar traces, unusual effects on electrical devices, or corroborating physical evidence such as burn marks and indentations.

The UFO phenomenon is as frustrating as it is interesting. If it represents interaction with a non-human intelligence, it would be without doubt one of the most significant discoveries in recorded history. And yet, informed opinion on the phenomenon ranges from total certainty to utter disbelief. How can this be?

Carl Sagan warned us that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This sounds sensible enough, but interpret with care. A real live alien is extraordinary evidence of an alien presence on earth. But you don't need an alien to acknowledge that there might be an alien presence on earth.

But Aliens Could Never Get Here!

Maybe. The typical arguments involve the depressing mismatch between the slow speed of rocket-powered interstellar travel and the human attention span. Or the speed of light and the amount of time it would take to respond to our first, faint radio broadcasts.

This is very cramped thinking. Powerful telescopes, such as we could conceivably build within a hundred years, could use spectroscopy to directly detect the chemical signs of life - like chlorophyll - on distant exoplanets.

Never mind reruns of "I Love Lucy", the Earth has been broadcasting signs that it's an interesting place for several billion years.

That's ample time to send a probe over. At bicycling speed. And by 'probe', that could be anything. Contacting alien civilizations are likely to be much, much older than us - perhaps millions of years older.

For them, a probe might be an antimatter-powered block of granite the size of Manhattan that mosied its way over here from Gliese 581c two hundred million years ago and nestled itself into the dark side of the moon.

Does this sound implausible? Two hundred years ago, powered flight was a fantasy to reasonable people. What does "plausible" mean when you have two hundred million years to think about it?

Once we get to the likely motives of alien intelligences, I think we can safely claim no expertise whatsoever. We can hardly figure out other humans!

Lights in the Sky

For my purposes, the plausibility debate is irrelevant. Maybe this isn't even about aliens. I'm reminded of the monks in Francis Bacon's parable, who spent days hotly debating - in vain - "the number of teeth in the mouth of a horse."
"After many days more of grievous strife the dove of peace sat on the assembly, and they as one man, declaring the problem to be an everlasting mystery because of a grievous dearth of historical and theological evidence thereof, so ordered the same writ down." - Francis Bacon
While the debate rages, the sightings continue - hundreds of them annually. Shouldn't we pay more attention? Shouldn't we look up a bit more?

We are looking more and more, telling one another, and writing it down. Organizations like MUFON maintain databases of the sightings they've recorded or investigated.

But this considerable effort has yet to produce a critical mass of evidence to turn world opinion in favour of a properly funded, open and systematic research into the phenomenon. Nor is it likely to.

The problem is summarized nicely in the 2008 Canadian UFO Survey.
"Because there is no way to enforce standards in UFO report investigations, the quality of case investigations varies considerably between groups and across provinces. Quantitative studies are difficult because subjective evaluations and differences in investigative techniques do not allow precise comparisons."

"Most Internet postings of UFO report information are incomplete and do not show any actual case investigation results, often forcing an evaluation of 'Insufficient Information.'"

- 2008 Canadian UFO Survey
And for all the video evidence uploaded to YouTube (along with some fun fakes), it's universally of low quality - white dots wobbling on a black background while impressed onlookers speculate as to what it is.

Can't we do better than white dots?

Better Than White Dots

I think we can do better. Much better.

What we need is better data collection - not better investigation, but better sightings.

I believe that we have all the ingredients necessary to build a community-based data collection program that will vastly improve the information the UFO research community has at its disposal.

Until recently, trying to get a good sighting meant sitting on your rooftop with binoculars and a video camera - fun for all of half an hour. But things have changed - we have cheap computing power, cheap video cameras, pervasive networks and a open source paradigm that can successfully develop the software needed to glue it all together.

My proposal is to build an open source hardware kit, affordable enough that nearly anyone interested could join in the search with a camera on their window, balcony or rooftop.

A camera networked to other nearby cameras, and positioned with overlapping fields of view allowing them to see stereoscopically and correlate what they see - to identify objects of interest and figure out their position, altitude, trajectory, velocity, acceleration, and size.

Comparing this real-time sighting data with the appearance and flight characteristics of insects, birds, clouds, kites, helicopters, airplanes - and escaped party balloons - will allow the system to pick out anomalies in real time and funnel them for human analysis, and issue real-time notifications to observers in the area - and to group-funded, higher-powered cameras that can follow the telemetry, zoom in and take close-ups.

I believe this can be done, that it's worth doing, and that there are people out there who will help me do it.

If you're one of them, please email me.